I’m behind the bar at Truss and Twine. There’s a nice lady at the bar, pointing to the cute little antique-looking dasher bottles lined up in a row on the bar top.
Lady: What are these? Balsamic vinegar and olive oil?
Me: No. They’re bitters.
Lady: Oh. What kind?
Me: Angostura, orange, Peychaud’s and celery.
Lady: So, do they make your drink bitter?
Me: Well, no, that’s not it, exactly …
Though they’re one of the oldest, most important and most versatile ingredients in cocktails, aromatic cocktail bitters—often referred to as the salt and pepper for adult beverages—are often misunderstood, overlooked and underappreciated.
Bitters have been produced, often for medicinal purposes, since at least the 1600s (and likely before). The human body is wired to reject the flavor of bitter, because it equates bitter with poison, so the body automatically gets the digestive juices flowing to combat the toxic element.
Bitters were first put into drinks in the 1700s and went through a boom in the United States back in the 1850s. Bitters were nearly extinct just after Prohibition, but have thankfully enjoyed a renaissance alongside the craft-cocktail wave we’re all currently riding. Fact: No old fashioned, Manhattan, Martinez, Vieux Carre or Sazerac is complete without the right bitters.
In a conversation about bitters, a co-worker at Workshop Kitchen + Bar, Jeff Cleveland, described bitters beautifully. Jeff worked for Bittercube—a company out of Milwaukee—that creates cocktail bitters and does bar consulting and training around the country.
“Bitters are to cocktails what salt, pepper, herbs and spices are to cooking,” he said. “It’s a way to affect the flavor of a cocktail without adding much liquid volume to the cocktail. Just like you’d salt a piece of meat or add herbs to a vegetable dish, adding bitters to a cocktail is often the thing that can bring the other ingredients in the cocktail together.”
Bitters are basically flavoring agents made from a high-proof, neutral-grain-based spirit infused with herbs, spices, botanicals, barks and roots, etc. Yes, most bitters contain alcohol. Angostura, for example, is 90 proof!
Bitters were originally presented by snake-oil salesmen as an elixir to cure anything from a cough or cold to constipation and malaria, and were likely first added to cocktails in London in the early 1700s, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, when bitters were being mixed with Canary wine or brandy. In 1750, he says, bitters were being mixed with brandy, which was lit on fire, along with melted sugar—essentially creating one of the world’s first cocktails.
Actually, bitters were part of the first known written definition of the word “cocktail,” in the May 13, 1806, edition of the Hudson, N.Y., newspaper The Balance, and Columbian Repository. The “cock-tail” was described by the writer as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.”
While there were hundreds of different bitters-makers in the 1800s, the world was down to just three after Prohibition suffocated and nearly choked out the world of mixology—Angostura, Peychaud’s and Fee Brothers—until the modern cocktail craze brought everything back full circle near the turn of the current century. While you could have probably found a bottle of Angostura hiding somewhere behind a bar in the 1980s and ’90s, at a trendy craft cocktail bar now, aromatic bitters and other tinctures are as prevalent as Civil War-era beards, handlebar mustaches and sleeve tattoos.
Dave Castillo, the bar manager at Workshop Kitchen + Bar and Truss and Twine (where I am employed), loves his bitters. At Truss and Twine, nearly half of the drinks on the menu call for aromatic bitters, while others contain bitter liqueurs.
“They’re absolutely important, and people are discovering that more and more,” he said. “When I first started bartending, everyone had the one bottle of Angostura behind their bar, and it was probably 3 years old, dusty and you never touched it. When I started doing craft cocktails, there were maybe four or five on the market. Now you couldn’t count them all if you tried to.”
Dave likes to keep it fairly simple. At Truss and Twine, we have Angostura, Peychaud’s, Angostura orange and Bitter Truth Celery Bitters. Workshop has Ango, Peychaud’s, Ango orange and Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters (nonalcoholic!) for their rad mocktail, the Wiki Tiki.
“For all the crazy flavors out there, I still think Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters are the big ones,” Castillo said. “I’ve worked in places where we’d have 15 different kinds on the bar, and the funny thing is you typically just grab the same three multiple times, every single day, and there’s a reason for that.”
Steen Bojsen-Moller, owner/partner of Palm Springs’ acclaimed cocktail bar Seymour’s and the beverage director for F10 Creative—the owners of Mr. Lyons, Cheeky’s, Birba, and the Alcazar hotel—leans toward the normal players as well, with roughly seven or eight types of bitters behind the bar at Seymour’s. They mainly use Angostura, Regans’ Orange No. 6, and Bitter Truth chocolate, celery, peach, lemon and tonic bitters.
At Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs, beverage director Chad Austin said they currently have 16 bitters/tinctures in stock and are actively using seven on their current menu. He said he’s a big fan of the Bittermens line, and Bootlegger uses Bittermens’ Boston Bittahs, Hellfire, Orchard Street Celery and Xocolatl Mole flavors, along with the classic Angostura, Peychaud’s and orange bitters.
Jeff Cleveland’s favorites to use at home include Bittercube’s Jamaican No. 1 and Jamaican No. 2 in his tiki-style cocktails, and I’ve used Bittercube’s Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters in my old fashioneds, as well as my whiskey and pisco sours.
Aromatic bitters can be more than a mere flavoring agent, too. One amazing drink, the bold and delicious Trinidad sour, uses Angostura bitters as its base, giving it a high level of confectionary notes, particularly clove; the bitters are usually paired with a little rye, orgeat and lemon juice, and served up. Bootlegger has an awesome tiki riff on the concoction on its current menu called the Trinidadi Issues, pictured below, which is Ango, aged rum, orgeat, cinnamon, lime and pineapple, served over crushed ice.
Though not for everyone, a straight shot of Angostura bitters is also one of my jams. I mean, why not? Castillo first introduced me to the idea, which I’ve come to learn is his modus operandi.
“After being a bartender in craft bars a while, and after we shot enough Fernet and all different kinds of amari, the next logical step to me was taking shots of Angostura,” he said. “I thought someone must have done it before, but nobody who I knew was. Everyone thought it was crazy, but I loved to start initiating people at my bar to it, and then going out to the neighborhood bars and doing it there, too.”
Patrick Johnson is a journalist and head bartender at Truss and Twine. He can be emailed at email@example.com.